Time flies by and on Thursday it was time for me to say goodbye to Fundación La Vecina, the most adorable kids, and the whole community I have grown to love and think of as a family. My 4-month Experteering mission was everything I hoped for, and more. I got to know a whole new world in La Boquilla, discover the Education field, participate in and manage many interesting projects and challenge myself as a teacher. Working with Colombians was an other experience, in good and bad. Mostly, however, I remember everyone I collaborated with being extremely friendly and welcoming.
A few weeks ago I wrote a story for Moving Worlds, the organisation through which I found this project with La Vecina in Cartagena. It got a bit shorten in the end but I still think it sums up quite well my thoughts about these past months, you can take a look at my post on their blog here. Thanks guys for inviting me to join your team as a guest blogger!
My last weeks I work hard on the new La Vecina website and social media strategy, in order to get it as far as possible before the end of my mission. One thing that I've learnt, everything in Colombia takes time. Like a veeery long time. But I think I've done now everything I can and the rest is in the hands of the web developing team. Stay tuned, and keep following our Facebook page here.
I'm also very proud of myself and my colleague K because we successfully handled a meeting (in Spanish!) with some 50 parents, without any preparation. Colombian way, there are always last minute changes and cancellations and so we were surprised to find ourselves hosting the meeting and talking about our English teaching program, among other topics, even if that was not the initial plan. Everything went well but I must say, now I understand why the kids are how they are. The parents would not be quiet for a second, or wait for their turn to talk. It took all my self-control to stay calm and polite instead of just shouting at them to shut up and listen. Talk about cultural differences, in Finland everyone would have sat still and no one would have dared to ask one single question. I don't know which way is better. The next day I asked some fifth grade girls what their parents had thought about the meeting but the only comment I got was: "My mum thinks you're very pretty". Well thanks, at least no complaints.
Last week we also had our "English Song Festival", that we had been practicing for since early spring. The kids singing English pop songs was the cutest thing ever, no surprise. I'll write a separate post about that once I have gathered all the pictures and videos! On my last days at the foundation I tried to spend as much time as possible with the children but still the time run off too fast. I covered for one English teacher and had my last classes, the kids were behaving more or less ok. On Tuesday me and K spent some time on the beach, playing with second grade kids, that was a lot of fun, as always. As a souvenir from my last week, second grader girl A gave me her very honest opinion about me. First thing: You are a good singer. Thank you. Second thing: You dance like a penguin. Thank you!!
The kids knew that it was my last week so they kept invading my office all the time, giving me hugs and wanting to take pictures. Even if I wasn't able to work that much, I didn't mind at all. At times we got a bit reckless and I let the kids play with balloons and climb up to the 3rd floor terrace. After all, it was my last week.
I knew that on my last day there would be some kind of ceremony and that there was no way I could escape it. I was right, one of the teachers had organised a small get-together were the kids could give me cards and say goodbye. That was lovely. Even if I didn't really like the attention, I couldn't have been happier to have a chance to officially thank everyone, and to give one last hug to the children. I counted the cards I received: 85! Almost every child had written something, and the smallest ones just drawn pictures. The messages were mostly the same: Thank you for everything you have taught us, thank you for all the fun we've had together, we love you and we will miss you. So sweet. Well I love and already miss you too, La Vecina kids! Some of them had tried to write something in English, that was hilarious to read. And the best one was from one 5th grade boy who wrote: "Teacher sorri por todo lo que hemos hecho..." Haha, what if next time you just behaved in class so you didn't have to apologise for causing the teacher a nervous breakdown. But I appreciate the thought.
It really is sad that my time here in Colombia is coming to an end and that next week I won't go back to work anymore. I liked my job a lot and I got so used to going to La Boquilla every day. I know I probably shouldn't have gotten this attached to the kids, I knew it would hurt in the end. But on the other hand, I don't think the experience would have been as rewarding, for me or for them, had I kept a distance. I'm not saying that I have favourites, but with some kids I've had a special connection since the beginning. Leaving them was especially hard, I seriously didn't know how to let go, I so wanted to take them with me and bring them wherever I go. But of course I couldn't, I had to hug them one last time and leave. They are in my mind every second, and I worry a little bit about their future and how everything will turn out in their lives. Mostly thought, I strongly believe that everything will turn out great and I'm eager to hear how they are doing. Luckily, I know that children, especially the smaller ones, will recover fast. There will be new volunteers and they will like them as much as they like me. I told everyone that I will be back as fast as I can, hopefully next year. I know that I can't give them false hope but I wasn't lying. It is funny how fast you get used to and start to love a new city, country and life. Even if there are tons of other places in the world that I want to see, I know that as soon as I have gathered enough money and holidays to travel again, I'll be back in Colombia.
The last group to stay at school on Thursday afternoon was fourth graders and many of them started to cry when it was time for them, and for me, to go. With Cuartos and Quintos we had so much fun together and we shared so many great moments. These kids come from difficult backgrounds and part of them have concentration and learning problems. They need extra attention and teaching them is at times challenging. But they are just adorable. They have a strong character, they are not afraid of anything and they are enthusiastic about everything they do. They love each other, their teachers and their families, and they constantly show it. What I really tried to teach them during these four months was to work hard and believe in their dreams, because they can do anything they want, and become anything they want. One girl even said that one day when a visitor asked her what she wanted to do later in life: "I want to be a singer and I want to go to New York, Paris and Hollywood. Nothing is impossible for me, I can do anything".
During my last days I took hundreds of pictures with the kids. Now when I look at them I smile and cry at the same time. You will always be in my heart and I can't wait to be back and see you again. Here are some of my best shots with the 4th graders on my last day. I had to say at least 20 times "this is the absolute last picture", before they were done posing and went back to class.
Me, master of selfies as always (or not):
The Segundos may like photo-shooting even more than Cuartos and Quintos if that's possible. When A and E see a camera they instantly stop whatever they are doing and strike a pose:
But ok, they are cute. And so is their third friend, C. She really is the most gorgeous little girl I've ever seen, and she is also very sweet and always behaving well (whereas A and E can be quite a trouble sometimes...)
What I also admired every day while spending time with La Vecina girls is their hair. Almost all of them have long, thick and beautiful hair, and unlike me, they don't seem to suffer from the heat or wind at all. I've also seen the most amazing coiffures that their parents do for them, sadly I didn't think of taking pictures before. M, you would be in heaven here. ;) Here's a few (ok many) examples:
Ok I know I'm posting a lot of pictures of the kids, but I have to while I still can! Besides, this blog is also I way for me to keep my pictures in order and memories safe so I hope you don't mind. :)
I've told you many times about the weather in Cartagena: heat, humidity, rainy season, inundations and so on. Even if it still sometimes rains, it is really not that bad. It rains maybe for 15 minutes and then the sun comes out again. Me and other gringos (foreigners) of course get crazy excited about the few rain drops we can get, but the locals seem to be a little bit afraid of the rain. One day a while ago, the weather was actually quite scary. The sky went grey and it was storming the whole evening. When I came home that night I was so cold that for the first time in Cartagena (except for when I was sick with food poisoning) I had to put long pants and a long sleeve shirt on.
The kids, however, still managed to look extremely cute, third graders J and D show the example:
So it's over for now, my last walk through la Boquilla. I will miss this neighbourhood and community so much. These people who always smile and always seem so happy. Those who told me that la Boquilla was dangerous in any way, were definitely wrong.
When we were putting together the Moving Worlds article with their blog coordinator we thought a lot about what pictures we would post, and decided not to put too many of me with the kids, because we didn't want the readers to jump into wrong conclusions. I had not really considered it before but he told me about a phenomenon they had come across in the internet, called "voluntourism". This type of experience is often mocked, it's said that people go to visit poor and rural places only to take cute pictures and gain social media likes. Sadly, I think there is a point. For example, this week we had some 15-year-old American girls with their mothers who came to "volunteer" with the foundation for four days. We were of course happy to welcome them and grateful for the donation they made, don't get me wrong. But these young girls, absolutely sweet and warm-hearted, didn't have any idea what life in la Boquilla, or working at La Vecina really is about. They were playing and singing with the kids (and taking pictures of course) and they kept repeating how lovely it was and how cute all the kids were. It seemed to me that coming to the foundation was mostly just an exotic part of their Colombian holidays, something to share on Facebook later on.
And I can totally understand it. First when you arrive to a place like la Boquilla, you are overwhelmed. Children love everything that is out of the ordinary, a distraction to their regular life, and of course they will instantly like you and want to take pictures with you. I felt exactly the same during my first days at La Vecina, you have to stay longer to really understand. Me too, I post pictures of kids smiling, laughing and jumping, pictures that give the impression that everything is good. And yes I post selfies with the kids, and maybe some people think that taking funny selfies is all there is to do here. But I don't really care what others may think because I know how it really is. Focusing on telling about happy moments and writing from a positive angle is a choice that I have made on this blog. I think it is because I didn't want this blog to get too personal, and also because I wanted to show that even in marginalised living conditions, there is a whole lot of sunshine, happiness and fun.
However, that is only half of the truth. People here are poor, their houses are in bad condition and most of them have the strict minimum to live with. They often become parents at very young age and don't have the chance to pursue their studies. Having seen things like violence, drugs, abuse or prostitution in their own family, it is not surprising that there is an influence on their kids as well. As I wrote on the Moving Worlds blog, It really breaks my heart to know how the life is in la Boquilla, and then spend my evenings and weekends on the fancy touristic side of Cartagena. The difference is mind-blowing. A part of the kids at La Vecina are brilliant students and seem perfectly stable, but there are also those who don't. I've already told you about the fact that they have trouble paying attention, listening to the teacher and doing what they are told to. Many times I have held them in my arms, soothing them when they were crying, trying to somehow understand and make them feel better. I have also been there when kids suddenly start fighting, having to use all my strength to separate them, and being seriously scared that someone will get hurt. So no, it is not only sunshine and cute little kids here. It is hard work, and nobody does it for money or for the attention. We are all here because we care deeply about this community and because we want to do what we can to help the people who life here. I truly admire my boss, N, who has founded La Vecina and dedicated her life to this project. Even when it is hard, she is always full of energy and never gives up. I also admire and greatly respect all the teachers of Fundación La Vecina. Their job is challenging and often undervalued, and still they keep doing it, always with a smile on their face. I wish I could stay for longer and do more, but right now I can't. However, as soon as my financial situation is more solid again, I will continue to help financially and next year become a "Padrino" for one of the new pre-scholar children.
And yes, I have my collection of pictures on this blog. It may look like stereotypical "voluntourism", and only those who have worked in a similar place will understand how it really is and share my feelings. These children are my friends, my little sisters and brothers, my babies. I care about them and I would do anything for them. They may be wild, annoying, tiresome and make me loose my mind, but I love them unconditionally and nothing could ever change that.
I'm Emilia, Finnish-Parisian, a recent Master's graduate. I'm currently traveling around the Caribbean and on a volunteering mission in Colombia. I'm passionate about writing, music and different kinds of sports. I can't wait to discover new places and cultures - and share my adventures with you!